Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fire-Spirits by Paul Busson

"A strange tale of a young man's involvement with a bewitching peasant child, mountain legends, and the quest for German unification. The English translation is said to be heavily expurgated, but I haven't read the German to compare."
-13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels, by Karl Edward Wagner.

One of the delights in reading through the KEW list is finding a real gem, a book I never would have encountered had it not been for his comments. The Fire-Spirits is such an example. Here is a book I've longed to read for the past 25+ years. It proved to be worth the wait. I would go so far to say this novel is one of the best I've read in the past year. And it's good to the last page. Hopefully, someone will bring out a new translation (the copy I borrowed was printed in 1929).
I've not been able to find much about Paul Busson, other than he was an Austrian writer and journalist who lived from 1873-1924. There's not much on him in German; he's considered and obscure writer of fantastic fiction. I know The Man Who Was Born Again, another one of his novels is available in an English.
The Fire-Spirits is a novel about Peter Storck, a young man who has traveled to the Tyrolean mountain area, now part of Switzerland and Italy. He's trying to find out what happened to his Uncle Martin, who disappeared from his house near the village of Sankt Marein. It's 1809 and the area is in the midst of the violence brought about by the Napoleonic wars. The Tyrolean region has been forsaken by it's traditional protector, the emperor of Austria, and handed over to the king of Bavaria. Add to this religion-the Tyroleans are catholic, the Bavarians protestant- and you have a deadly mix. Which is why the mountain people have no love for the Bavarian militarists and are planning a revolt.
At the village, Peter meets a number of colorful characters. The hunter Serafin Federspiel, a former university student who saw his family massacred by the french. He's the lone dissenter ("Germans shouldn't be fighting Germans!) in the village when everyone wants to take up arms against Bavaria . There's the innkeeper Christian Lergetpohrer and his niece Notburga, who ends up being Peter's housekeeper. And there is the local parish priest Father Archangelus, who urges the local populace to fight for the true faith against the foreign invaders. Early in the novel, Peter falls in love with the mysterious Julia, a woman held in awe by most of the village. To list all the interesting figures in this novel would take a score card, it's best for the reader to discover them on their own.
Peter Storck takes up residence in his Uncle Martin's house which is filled with curiosities in the study and guns in the basement. Martin Storck had been an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army before resigning after striking a french nobleman. Disgraced, he cursed the emperor and retired to the mountains. Peter soon learns that the local people believe the old officer perished when he tried to spy on the "fire-spirits", mysterious lights which appear in the mountains during the equinoxes. Legend had it the lights are the products of condemned souls who are released twice a year from hell to cool themselves in the glacier. If anyone encounters them, the interloper will be dashed on the rocks below. Peter is even shown the strange lights descending the mountains through the safe distance of a telescope.
Soon, Peter becomes involved with the hunter Serafin in a plan to discover the true nature of the lights. Are they smugglers sneaking down the mountains? Actual demonic creatures? Or something else? Survival of an ancient pagan cult is hinted at throughout the novel, but only resolved in the final chapters.
The theme of possession reoccurs through the book. The innkeeper Christian shoots a Bavarian drummer boy in an initial skirmish with royal troops and begins seeing the victim in his sleep. Peter steps off the carriage as he arrives in the village to see a priest trying to exorcise a nun. It's a theme which never is fully resolved.
The description of mountain warfare is grim. Peter and the rest of the villagers end up in an ambush on a Bavarian-French campaign which is described in gruesome detail. The sack of Innsbruck by the rebels also features prominently.
The Fire-Spirits is an forgotten masterpiece of literature. I can only hope someone will bring the English translation back into print.


  1. So you received the book? Great to hear it. It's also one of your best reviews! Thanks for the books you sent me too. Much appreciated! But I thought you were sending Dr. Death too, as I sent you two of them. Plus I can still send you the .pdf of at least Medusa. Cheers, Dan.

  2. Also, extremely glad you liked the book. It is an amazing piece of fantastic literature. I also wish for an updated translation but thought it was very good nonetheless. I wonder what was omitted? Why do they do that? Argh! Cheers, your friend, Dan

  3. I'll get Dr Death off to you this weekend.
    Any way you could send MEDUSA as a pdf attachment to an email? I don't think it would take up a lot of space.
    Yes, THE FIRE SPIRITS was one excellent book. I was truly floored by the ending.

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  5. Tim you are a gentleman! Thanks, truly for the books. I'll send the pdf right away. I mentioned your blog on Will Errickson's "Too Much Horror Fiction" blog. I hope you don't mind but your post here about this important book is well worth it! I'll also send you pictures of the first British edition dust jacket of "The Fire-Spirits" (I don't have this dj myself, though). Bye for now, Dan.

    Ps. I just deleted the last comment b/c I misspelled Mr. Errickson's name in it, it's two "r"s not one. Check his blog out, if you haven't already or did I find out about it from you? Blogs can be confusing and more than a little (jk) incestuous at times!

  6. It's been over a year, but I must say that this is the best of the KEW series (so far).

  7. Have you read anything on the KEW recently? I'm going to read the recent reprint of Hanns Heinz Ewers' "Alraune", which came out from Side Real Press with a new translation and it'll then "Vampire" (which has yet to be retranslated by Joe E. Bandel or at least reissued by Side Real). "Vampire" is the only book on the 39 list that I own and have yet to read. I started it long ago, but the beginning seemed a little muddled and the confusion led to boredom and I abandoned it for something else. After that, the only books on the list I haven't read'll be the other two R.R. Ryan's, "Freak Museum" and "The Subjugated Beast". Needless to say, those are the ones I can't wait to read ---in fact, if I got them in hand tomorrow, I would put aside ANYTHING I am reading and read them both back to back. Ryan's "Echo of a Curse" haunts me to this day and is among my proverbial "desert island" books. Dan, formerly of Weird Horror

  8. I realize that I may be late to the party by several years, but just wanted to let folks know that my imprint Dancing Tuatara Press has published new editions of "The Subjugated Beast", "Echo of a Curse", "Freak Museum" and "Death of a Sadist" by R.R. Ryan; the complete novels of Mark Hansom; and will be issuing The Fire Spirits next month. KEW was a good friend and mentor, and I'm doing what I can to make titles from his list and related works available to a new generation of readers. Check out the whole endeavor at or e-mail me with questions, comments, suggestions at

    BTW: I have discovered a sequel to The Flying Beast by Walter S. Masterman and we will be bringing out the expanded edition very soon!